Sunday 23 January 2022
It’s amazing how quickly things come around once the ball gets rolling. It feels like it was only yesterday that I accepted a new role and handed in my notice at my current workplace; now I’ve come to the end of my final week.
Changing jobs is exciting, but it comes with a lot of nerves. After starting my horticulture career in this place, it feels like I’m removing the safety net and diving into the unknown. On the other hand, I’m starting work in one of my favourite botanical gardens in a couple of weeks and my confidence and competency have been reinforced. Going into a new, more challenging environment is exactly what I had envisaged at the end of my apprenticeship. Now I just have to keep my imposter syndrome under control.
Fortunately, to keep my mind off all of that, I had a lot of work to get on with and frosty temperatures to contend with this week.
Tuesday 16 January
After being away from work with a nasty splinter (read: large wood chip embedded in my finger), I spend today at a site I don’t usually work in. It is an area we know as ‘the podium’ with several large raised beds, some spanning hundreds of square metres. I was tasked with clearing the Anemone x hybrida that had died back, as well as cutting back the flowering stalks of the Agapanthus africanus.
I do love a good before and after photo, as it is all too easy to underestimate the impact of your work without the visual aid. However, in this case, the difference was striking. The bed had a graveyard-like quality due to the vast number of tall, dead flowering stalks of the Anemone. I believe the celebrated garden designer Piet Oudolf said of plants that the “skeletons… are as important as the flowers”. However, in this case, the hundreds of stalks were quite overpowering and nothing like the stunning melange of textures, colours and layers that Oudolf delivers. So they had to go.
Typically the cutting back of perennials like this takes place in early spring, just as the new growth starts to emerge, however, when working in a busy site like this, sometimes we don’t have the privilege of perfect timing. Nonetheless, these plants will be just fine, as the temperatures are much milder now and the raised bed is well sheltered by the adjacent buildings, which will prevent any frost or wind damage to the delicate emerging shoots.
Initially, I started by cutting the plants back with my secateurs, cutting the dead stems as close to the base as I could without damaging new growth. However, after only making very slow progress, I reached for some shears and quickly cut all the plants to a height just above the green shoots. After that, I very gently tugged on the dead plant matter and the majority of it easily came loose. Any pieces that resisted were cut close to the base with my sharp, clean secateurs. While this method was much faster than my spot-pruning, getting this bed to a good horticultural standard was going to be a two-day job.
Wednesday 19 January
Today was spent finishing the bed I was working on yesterday and clearing it up. After finishing cutting back and clearing the Anemone x hybrida, I moved on to the Agapanthus. Their beautiful flowering stalks eventually set seed and die back over winter, sometimes toppling over. I used my secateurs to cut as close to the base of the flowering stalk and removed any dead foliage from underneath the plant. This was also a good opportunity to look through the foliage for any litter or remnants of previous flowering heads that may not have been correctly removed. These are usually dry enough to simply pull out.
After a good clear out, I moved my attention to the soil, which needed light cultivation, largely to remove the moss that had spread across the surface. Moss is a common tell-tale sign of waterlogging or excess water in the soil so I made sure the drainage pipes and grates were clear of debris before removing as much moss as I could with a springbok rake. It is very difficult to remove all the moss without also removing a lot of soil in the process. Regular light raking of the moss, cultivation and improved drainage should solve this issue in future.
I cultivated the soil using a three-pronged cultivator and started at the sandier areas, where the soil was lighter. This allowed me to drag across the more clayey, compacted soil from underneath, leading to a good and consistent depth of cultivation. I was careful of the delicate new growth took my time around the root environment to prevent any damage to the plants.
After this, I created a sharp edge around the lawn using a half-moon and edging shears before packing up for the day and a well-deserved hot chocolate when I got home.
Thursday 20 January
After donning my thermal tights, under layers and ice-handling gloves (no, really, they are made for working in -30℃ weather), I headed out to another raised bed on ‘the podium’. This one seemed like a quick job: leaf clearance, weeding, and cultivation. That was until I realised I was working with pure clay. I mean, this soil was so heavy I could have made pottery with it. One benefit of working with very compacted soil is that the conditions can be so inhospitable that even the hardiest of weeds can’t survive. After some very, very light weeding, I moved on to cultivation using a spade. After about an hour of hacking away, the area was looking more like soil and less like tarmac. It was such as good workout that my watch recorded it as an outdoor run! I did the same on the other side of the bed, which mercifully had a far better, more workable structure.
Friday 21 January
I finished off the week working on one of my favourite beds on ‘the podium’: a little Heuchera and Ilex bed. I started by cutting back a few of the Anemones and removing any dead plant matter I could see. After that, I dealt with the suffocating Cymbalaria muralis. Which, although pretty, spreads like mad and was tangled up in the all Heuchera and needed to go.
Then I cut back the dead flowering stalks of the Heuchera and gave the soil a good cultivate. As it is a narrow bed and I didn’t need to stand on the soil at all, it was a breeze to cultivate and the soil capping was quickly removed, which means that these plants will be able to access all the water they need when it next rains or they get watered.
Around the corner there were a few Ilex trees that needed sweeping out and the soil cultivating. This was a quick job and I was soon giving the lawn a quick edge. I finished off the day giving the area a quick sweep to remove any debris and putting my tools and wheelbarrow away in the lock-up for the last time!
I’m really going to miss these sites, but I’m so glad I got a chance to give them a bit of love before I head off. Now it’s time to buckle up for a week of annual leave before I get my teeth into the new job.